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Love at First Bite

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Rayla smiled at her client as they waited for their server to come.  Her boss had told her that they had to keep the contract with the client’s company no matter what, and if that meant going to a Korean-Italian fusion restaurant that would probably be too spicy for Rayla’s Scottish, fried-food-loving taste buds, so be it.  The client, Ms. Danvers, had been hyping the restaurant up all evening.  “You said you like potatoes?  This place as amazing kimchi-style potatoes and potato pancakes.”

Rayla nodded.  “My grandmother is Irish and there are always potatoes cooking in her house.”  Rayla subtly looked around the dining room. The walls were mostly white with a few panels a beautiful red.  There was artwork on the walls, ranging from sceneries to portraits.  They all looked to be done by the same artist but Rayla couldn’t place a name to them.  The air was warm and smelled of spices and herbs and cheese.  Rayla could see a row of cheeses on one of the shelves.  “Do they use a lot of cheese here?”

“Korean food pairs wonderfully with cheese.  There’s a rumor that all the vegetables here are from the local farmer’s market as are most of the cheeses.  It’s fusion, but it’s as domestic as possible, too.”

“You’ve really been talking this place up.”

Ms. Danvers flushed.  “It’s my favorite restaurant.  I come here for lunch once a week and get take-away whenever I’m having a bad day.  This place is known for Korean-Italian fusion, but they make a delicious Thai laksa and a vegetarian Tom Yum that is to die for.”

“Really?”  Rayla didn’t know that much about Asian food, but she knew that Tom Yum was common in Thai eateries.

“The chef is a quarter-Thai and a quarter-Korean, his grandparents being from Thailand and South Korea.  He knows the flavors well and plays with them, but when he goes authentic, he’s the best in town.  He will also make almost any dish vegetarian if you request it.”

“How accommodating.” 

A server came up, a smile on their face.  “Good evening and welcome to Sarai’s Place.  Any wine to start this evening?”  Rayla shook her head, surprised when Ms. Danvers asked for Thai iced tea for the both of them.  “And what can I get started for you?”

“Ms. Burrows?”

Rayla looked down at the menu again.  “Hmm.  I’m not sure what to get.  I don’t have a very high spice tolerance.”

The server nodded.  “Scale of 1 to 10?”

“Maybe a three.”

“Do you like kimchi?”

“Never had it.”

“Then I recommend trying the kimchi potatoes, if you like potatoes, or the risotto, which features chopped kimchi, sesame oil, and garlic.  The chef makes two kinds of kimchi, one mild and one spicy, so he’ll use the mild for you.  For the main dish, if you enjoy cheese, a pasta dish that has mussels, a Korean chili paste and tomato sauce, and fresh parmesan.  Everything that can be local, is local and if you eat vegetarian, the mussels will be taken out and instead you will get mushrooms.”

“My grandmother is Irish so I’m very snobbish with my potatoes.”

“I would rate his potato pancakes a ten.  He takes the traditional Korean recipe and adds parmesan cheese and some rosemary and its cooked with the house chili oil, so when you cut into it, it’s cheesy and subtly spicy.  The house chili oil is made with both gochugaru and the type of dried chilis usually used to make olio di peperocino.”

“I’ll go with the pancakes and the mussels pasta you suggested.”

“Excellent choice.  And for you?”

Ms. Danvers smiled.  “Did he make Tom Yum or laksa today?”

“Laksa.”

“I will take a bowl of laksa while Ms. Burrows is eating her pancakes and I will also take the mussels pasta.  Can we also get an order of garlic bread?”

“Of course.  I’ll get your Thai iced teas ready.  Anything else today?”

“What’s the dessert of the week?”

“Since it’s summer, mango pudding, Thai coconut pudding, and strawberry-lime cheesecake.”

“We’ll each take a slice of the strawberry-lime cheesecake.”  The server nodded and walked away after reading back the list.  “I hope you don’t mind me ordering dessert for you, but he only makes that cheesecake when the strawberries are in their peak season and it’s worth it.”

Rayla nodded.  “No problem, Ms. Danvers.  I wouldn’t really know what to order otherwise.”

They chatted while they waited, pausing when the garlic bread came to the table.  Rayla had been expecting the kind of garlic bread Americans seemed to adore, buttery and almost artificially garlic-y.  Instead, they got small, fresh loaves that had pieces of roasted garlic and thyme baked into it, served with the house chili oil and garlic that had been cooked until it spread like butter on the bread.  Rayla was impressed with the flavor and how the pieces of garlic were not overpowering. 

When the potato pancakes came, Rayla could smell the spice but trusted the server had not led her astray, eyeing her glass of Thai iced tea just in case.  One bite and she was in heaven.  The cheese and the heat from the chili only enhanced the potato flavor as did the light smattering of soy sauce and vinegar-based sauce.  Rayla almost ignored Ms. Danvers when the pasta came, inhaling the dish.  At the end of the meal, once the excellent cheesecake had been finished, Rayla was in love with the food.  “Well, Ms. Danvers, I suppose I should be thanking you for introducing me to my new favorite restaurant.”

Ms. Danvers chuckled.  “It’s good, isn’t it?”

“I would marry the chef in a heartbeat if I got to eat like this every day for the rest of my life.”

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Rayla brought all her clients and her coworkers to Sarai’s Place in the following months.  She tried almost everything on the menu, though she was still mildly terrified of the spiciness of the laksa if the smell alone was anything to go by.  Every Monday and Thursday, she got take-away and ordered the dessert whenever she ate in on Saturdays.  She was thankful she was single or else she would have to come here every week with someone and she liked dining alone in the quiet restaurant. 

Sometimes, they played classical music, other times K-pop, and Rayla would always remember the night they had played an opera medley when several people with the Katolis Opera Company had dined that night.  The chef seemed keenly aware of who came to his restaurants at what dates and times and played music to fit their tastes but also made sense with the theme. 

It was a popular spot with not only Foodies and high school kids, but a lot of Asian-Americans dined there.  Rayla had looked up the reviews and had seen it was highly recommended by the Katolis Korean and Thai communities, the Katolis restaurant circles, and the Commission for the Promotion of Local Ingredients and Farmer’s Markets.  No one said anything bad about Sarai’s Place without at least ten people defending the restaurant’s choices. 

And now Rayla was sitting with her boss, Ahling Patel, and having to stop herself from inhaling the food in front of her.  The risotto was so satisfying and paired with chicken breast stuffed with kimchi, perilla, and ricotta.  “What do you think, Mr. Ahling?”

“It’s delicious.  I’ve always felt that fusion was a gimmick, but I’m sold by this young man’s food.  Young lady,” Ahling called the server, smiling good-naturedly when she nodded at him and finished up with her current customer.  When she came up to their table, she greeted them again.  “Is there anyway we can speak to the chef?”

The server blinked before nodding.  “I’m sure I can arrange it.  Dinner service is almost over and there are only you and two other tables.  Can I bring you dessert while I’m talking to him?”

“What do you recommend?”

“Our pastry chef made yakgwa, which are little honey pastries made with pine nuts, ginger, and sesame oil and they also made a yuja polenta cake and a play on Italian lemon cake, but with yuja.”

Rayla ordered the yakgwa and Ahling got the polenta cake and waited for the news.  Rayla couldn’t recall having ever seen the chef even though she came there at least twice a week, closer to three.  She hadn’t seen any pictures of him, either, surprisingly enough.  He was said to keep to himself and shunned the limelight, which is why he never made TV appearances. 

A few minutes later, it wasn’t their server, but a man who looked be about 26 arriving with their desserts.  His green eyes were striking, as were his cheekbones and sharp jawline.  He gave them both an awkward smile as Rayla noticed his ring finger was bare and didn’t seem to have a tan line.  Was this the chef?  His coat would seem to say so.  “Nice to meet you both.  I’m Callum Evans, the owner and executive chef here at Sarai’s Place.”

Ahling smiled.  “It’s nice to meet you, young man.  I’m Ahling Patel and this is my employee, Rayla Burrows.”  Rayla nodded her head in acknowledgement.  “Your food is delicious.  How on Earth do you even think of this?”

The young man flushed, looking down at his feet.  “Um, I’m not that special.  Many people before me found that Korean and Italian food go well together.  Most of my recipes are riffs on family recipes and all my Thai dishes are family recipes.  I was originally going to go traditional Korean or Thai but there were no fusion places in the area and I’m part Irish and German on top of being a quarter-Thai and a quarter-Korean.  It felt…right, I guess.  I’m mixed and grew up with a variety of food cultures in my house, so why not do fusion?  Korean and Italian just made the most sense, so…”  He looked embarrassed at the praise, rubbing the back of his neck.

Rayla leaned forward a bit.  “I’ve eaten here at least twice week for the past six months.  I can tell you, without a doubt, it’s my favorite place to eat.”

“Thank you.”

Ahling cleared his throat.  “Are you single, Mr. Evans?”

Callum flushed even deeper.  “Ah.  Yes.  Being a chef requires long hours and running a restraint requires even more.”

“You need a good partner to help you find balance in your life!”

Rayla remained quiet as she watched them talk.  The only thing going through her mind was ‘I’m going to marry this man for his food.  I’ll eat well for the rest of my life.’  She stayed when Ahling said good night and while the restaurant emptied out.  Callum stayed at the table, fidgeting under her gaze.  “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“A date.”

Callum blinked.  “We have a sticky rice made with dates-”

“No.  A romantic excursion.  An outing.”

He gulped, looking her up and down.  “A date?  Really?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I fell in love with your food almost immediately after I tasted it and would like the chance to know the man who cooks it.”

Callum blushed.  “OK.”  They exchanged info and Rayla smirked as she left with his number in her cellphone.  There was no way she would be letting this one go. 

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After four months of dating, Rayla could confidently say that she was now just as in love with Callum the man as she was with his cooking.  Learning that his restaurant was named after his mother who died when he was in high school had endeared him to her, as had the knowledge that all the art on the walls were his paintings.  Was there anything he couldn’t do?

They were currently in Callum’s kitchen, him developing a new recipe while Rayla took down notes for him.  Even on his days off, he was always thinking about what he would do next and Rayla admired his passion to his craft.  When he brought her up to try the dish, she groaned.  “I will marry this man if it’s the last thing I do,” she muttered.

“I can hear you, you know,” Callum chuckled.

Rayla raised a brow.  “Then why haven’t you accepted my proposal?”

“Because you proposed to my food?”

“I hardly see the difference.”  Callum laughed at her, shaking his head.  “Hey, move in with me.”

“We’ve been together for four months.”

“Is that a problem?  Too short?”

Callum stared at her.  “You’re serious.”

“I told you; I fully plan on marrying you to eat your cooking ‘til the day I die.”

“So, it’s my cooking you love?”

“When have I hidden this?”  Rayla reached for his hand, pulling him closer.  “I’m serious.  Move in with me.”

“Why?”

Rayla shrugged.  “I’m happy when we wake up next to each other.  I like the idea of coming home to you or you coming home to me.  I don’t like sleeping alone, and, for the past month, the two of us have been alternating sleeping at each other’s places and it doesn’t make sense to pay rent on two places when we could be happy together?”

“That and I’m the only person willing to put up with your stubborn ass.”

Rayla gave him a mock offended looking, giving his arm a playful smack.  “You love my stubborn ass.”

“I do.”  Callum leaned down and captured her lips, letting her taste the dish he had been working on for the past hour.  When they pulled apart, he looked down into her eyes with his bright green ones.  “I think I love you.”

“That’s good, because I think I love you, too.”

Rayla would take that for now.  And in two years, when she would be standing next to him in front of their new house, matching rings on their fingers, and a very pregnant belly, she would remind him that he had his food to thank for their relationship.  “I fell in love with your food first.”

“I’m glad you did, because you kept coming back.”

“Lucky you.”

“Lucky me.”